Mevlüt Öztaş: Diary of a dying journalist

Mevlüt Öztaş was one of the hundreds of Turkish journalists who were imprisoned in the past few years. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2020. After several requests for his release on health grounds, he was finally freed in June. Öztaş passed away on August 19, 2020, 57 days after his release from prison. Here is an excerpt from his prison diary.

KRONOS 30 Eylül 2020 TURKEY

Journalist Mevlüt Öztaş had worked as a correspondent for the Cihan News Agency -seized and shut down by the Turkish government in 2016- for 8 years. He was arrested on February 1, 2018. Öztaş was in good health when he was taken into custody but during his stay in prison, he suffered kidney dysfunction, hypertension, and ultimately he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Öztaş was sentenced to nine years and three months in prison for being an employee of Cihan. His repeated requests for a release on health grounds were rejected. A regional court refused to release him despite a medical report deeming him unfit to remain in prison. When he was finally released on June 2020 upon appeal, after spending more than two years in prison, stage-four cancer had already spread to his intestines, liver, and lymph nodes.

He underwent chemotherapy at a hospital for about two months as an outpatient. In this process, his kidneys completely failed. The doctors decided to discontinue the chemotherapy because his body could not withstand it.

Mevlüt Öztaş passed away on August 19, 2020, 57 days after his release from prison.

Here is an excerpt from the diary he kept in prison.


MARCH 15, 2018 – I am imprisoned but there is no accusation. MASAK (Financial Crimes Investigation Board) proves my innocence.

I am a member of Uşak Journalist’s Union and Uşak Publishers Union only. Besides these two, I am not a member of any other organization. My two daughters are college students and I have another daughter who goes to high school. I also have a son who needs care. [After his father’s arrest, Öztaş’s son Yekta started to have speech problems.] My wife was diagnosed with hepatitis in 2013. She shouldn’t work because of her illness but she works in daily jobs if she can find any, because of my and my family’s needs.

10 July 2018 – I have been in prison for 160 days. I am married with four children. My wife is ill. My family has no income. Our family unity has been destroyed. My children started to be depressed because I haven’t been able to see them for a long time.

July 12, 2018 – I went to the doctor’s office due to my sickness.

July 26, 2018 – I went to the doctor’s office and gave a blood sample for testing.

July 27, 2018 – I was examined by an eye doctor, a urologist, and a nephrologist. My demand for the removal of my handcuffs and a private examination with the doctor was rejected.

July 30, 2018 – I gave blood and urine samples for testing and had an ultrasonic examination. Conditions in prison are very bad. Frequently we have a water shortage, the cells are not hygienic. There is hot water only for 45 minutes daily and the 21 people in the cell need to take a bath during this time. There are 21 people in the cell which is actually designed for 8 people. We wait for one hour to go to the toilet. I don’t have a cabinet on my own where I can put my clothes and personal things. There are only 5 cabinets in the cell.

The doctor told me I need to have surgery because of the hernia in the groin. But a cellmate told me he had an infection after surgery due to bad hospital conditions and now he faces the risk of paralysis. I don’t want to have surgery in fear of infection.

November 1, 2018 – I was diagnosed with kidney failure and hypertension. My right kidney does not function and the left one functions with 87 % capacity.

November 2, 2018 – I went to the doctor’s office. He told me to come back tomorrow, he will refer me to a dietician. When I officially demanded this from the prison management, the health officer of the prison named Turgay prevented me from going to treatment and didn’t let me see the doctor.

January 17, 2019 – I went to the doctor’s office. I took pills for hypertension and stomach pain.

[From January to March, Öztaş notes the times when he saw the doctor, his medications as well as his weight and blood pressure.]

October 30, 2019 – These are the allegations against me: 1. My contacts about my journalistic work. 2. Being an employee of Cihan Media. 3. Writing critical news about the government. 4. Following a protest in front of the courthouse as a journalist. 5. My news stories being shared on social media. 6. Some of the education news that I wrote. 7. My phone calls related to my work as a journalist. 8. My salary deposited to Bank Asya which was a  legitimate bank approved by the state.

November 1, 2019 – The petitions that I wrote to the director of the institution: mostly about demanding blanket.

January 2, 2020 – In the hearing dated December 24, 2019, they decided on the continuation of my detention. I have been on trial for 1541 days, 703 of which is in prison. However, during this time they have not even put a single concrete proof to my file. I was put on trial for being a journalist and being punished for doing my job.

January 14, 2020 – I went to the Afyon State Hospital and the doctors asked for urine samples. I wanted to go to the restroom but the security guards didn’t allow me. I had to give the sample on foot. Patient privacy was violated.

January 17, 2020 – I wanted to go to the doctor. It was not allowed although I had hypertension.

February 11, 2020 – I was put in solitary confinement due to a petition asking for information.

February 13, 2020 – I am in solitary confinement. I have a liver problem and I need to drink 2 liters of water daily. But I could only drink one liter in two days. They don’t let me have access to drinking water. The water faucet in my cell is not working as well.

February 18, 2020 – After 24 months, 2 weeks, and 3 days (747 days) the justified decision of 9 years 3 months prison time reached me.

February 19, 2020 – (From the petition submitted to the prison management) I have been in solitary confinement since February 11, 2020, although I didn’t commit any disciplinary crimes. I have various health problems. I had stomach hernia and reflux surgeries. I started to have reflux problems again and when I get to sleep the gastric juice rises back to my esophagus. I have a risk of suffocation. I experienced this twice and survived thanks to my cellmates. I also have hypertension, asthma, and kidney failure. I need to live in a clean and warm environment. However, it is dusty and cold here. I have trouble breathing. I am worried that I can get sick with untreatable illnesses. I demand the end of my stay in solitary confinement.

February 20, 2020 – I’m 49, I have never committed a crime in my life. I have nothing to do with the alleged crimes. Especially the “terror crime” allegations are devastating for me. I only practiced journalism. Since the first day of my detention, I was not allowed to see my lawyer or the digital materials were taken from my residence, I was not faced with the people who make these allegations against me. […] I am not a terrorist.

March 12, 2020 – There are not enough precautions against coronavirus in prison. All the detainees are using the same phones and they are not disinfected. This caused panic attacks in prison, all the prisoners are psychologically affected.

March 29, 2020 – I was urgently hospitalized today. I have jaundice now because of liver and kidney failures.

March 31, 2020: My pancreas duct is blocked, liver failure started and this leads to jaundice and internal bleeding. “What blocked the duct will be determined after pathology,” the doctor said and at that point, I realized that I have cancer.

April 6, 2020: I was too weak. I went to the doctor’s office in a wheelchair. The doctor called an ambulance. But the prison management sent me to the hospital with a prison transportation vehicle instead of an ambulance. Because of the seriousness of my illness, they referred me to Ankara City Hospital. I am traveling in the ambulance with my hands still handcuffed to the stretcher. When we arrived at the city hospital they didn’t let me in because they don’t have a room for the inmates. They tried for a few hours but in vain. From there, we went to Dışkapı Yıldırım Beyazıt Hospital, my hands still handcuffed, accompanied by two soldiers.

I felt weaker and passed out in the wheelchair. They started to do the tests while I was in the wheelchair. I could hardly hear the conversations and couldn’t answer the questions. We arrived at the inmate cell in the hospital and I regained consciousness. Here too they didn’t let me in at first because of a lack of documents. They accepted me as a patient after they received the referral documents from the doctor. It feels extremely cold, I am freezing. I asked for another blanket. I can hardly eat the meals they give me.

April 24, 2020 – I couldn’t play with my children as much as I wanted, especially with my little one, my Ali Yekta. They arrested me as if I was a thug when he was very young. I couldn’t embrace and smell him as much as I wanted. They have tortured us for 47 months, father longing for his son, son longing for his father.

April 25, 2020 – They gave me two units of blood in the oncology service.

April 27, 2020 – My first chemotherapy started at 4 pm today and ended at 10 pm. They will apply at least 4 treatments. Then, two more will be applied depending on the result. It means if I receive four treatments I will stay 96 days and for six treatments 144 days at the hospital in Ankara. My God, I am both a prisoner and a patient, I am also separated from my family. I don’t know if it is because of my illness but I became overly sentimental. Now, my family and my life is passing through my eyes as if it is a film reflected on the prison wall.

April 28, 2020 – I received the second dose of the first treatment of chemotherapy.

April 29, 2020 – I received the third dose of the first chemotherapy. The second treatment will start in 21 days.

April 30, 2020 – I was seen by the health committee today. They will evaluate whether I will be able to stay in prison or not because of hypertension, kidney failure, and pancreatic cancer.

May 6, 2020 – I was informed that there was a 14mm tumor in my liver.

May 9, 2020 – They started to draw blood everyday after the third chemotherapy. They also started to give me shots every day. I am thankful to my daughters. I can be treated in the hospital thanks to their efforts and prayers. Otherwise, I was going to be back in prison in this condition. May God bless my daughters.

May 10, 2020 – Today, I started to lose my hair. I put my hands on my head in front of the washbasin and my hands were full of hair. Then I cleaned the washbasin which was full of hair. I brushed my hair with my hands, they continued to fall. I didn’t feel comfortable and then I washed my hair. Unfortunately, it kept falling. Then, I accepted the fact that I have cancer. Until now, I tried to feel as if I were not. Actually, they have been drawing a unit of blood every day for two weeks, giving shots from my right and left shoulders and transfuse. I hadn’t felt that I have cancer even through all these. But the hair loss changed everything.

When I had an appendicitis surgery 34 years ago, they gave me an analgesic shot from my left and right hips for 9 days. Oddly enough, I feel the pain now on the exact spots they gave the shots. At night, I couldn’t sleep at all because of the pain. “The villain thinks he is tyrannizing us. No. The tyranny on us would not abide, it will pass but it will abide on the villain’s neck eternally.” Saadi Shirazi

May 17, 2020 – Yesterday, it was our wedding anniversary. I have been separated from my wife and children for 4 years. God damn the tyrants and their supporters who put us in this situation, God damn them the number of times for each year, each month, each week, each day, each hour, each minute, each second, each moment.

May 22, 2020 – The third dose of the second treatment of chemotherapy ended. I took a shower. All the hair in my body, my beard abandoning me. The doctor is applying a treatment that will take 5 days. Today, it is the second day. I feel exhausted. I can only leave the bed for praying and eating.

Today, it is Eid and I have spent four Ramadans away from my family, alone. Only me and the four walls. There is no one I can talk to. Just the health officers who come for the tests and the guardians who bring me the food.

My late father would buy new Eid clothes for all the members of the family. I couldn’t buy anything for my children for the Eids. I apologize for this.

May 27, 2020 – Today it is my 59th day in the hospital. I have been cooking melemen (Turkish style scrambled eggs with tomato) in my dreams for two days. How I wish there was also tea with melemen. I missed melemen that I cooked in prison. I dream of the days I will cook melemen at home. And also eggs with sujuk. I felt more hungry thinking about all these…

May 31, 2020 – I was discharged from the hospital room assigned to inmates and brought back to Sincan Prison. I was put on cell A3. The cell is for three people but I stay alone because of the coronavirus.

[The last sentence in Öztaş’s diary]: “Life is an unrepeatable process, ‘if only’s and ‘what if’s would not bring anything back.”

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